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Shelley the lost Victorian

Well, I’ve finished Richard Holmes’s Shelley:The Pursuit. I didn’t find it as gripping as his superb biography of Coleridge, but it became more enjoyable as it went along. Mainly, I think, because Shelley became much more likeable as he matured personally, politically and poetically. Not that he became less radical, or completely lost the restlessness that tended towards recklessness, but he did become a good deal more nuanced and thoughtful. And what one particularly looks for in a poet – his poetry got much better. He’s never going to be one of my favourite poets, but I’m more positively inclined towards his work now than before I read the book.

An odd fact about the five major English Romantic poets: their lifespans were nested inside each other like a set of Russian dolls. Keats was born last and died first; Shelley was a little older and died shortly after him, and so on through Byron and Coleridge to Wordsworth, born way back in 1770 and going on to outlive them all.

The deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron really do create an extraordinary discontinuity in English poetry. Not just in terms of the poetry they might have written – if Coleridge and Wordsworth are anything to go by, their later work might not have been very exciting – but just as part of the normal progression of generations of influence. Who knows how Browning’s poetry might have been affected if instead of Shelley the idealised poet, he’d had a chance to meet Shelley the neurotic radical.

It also mires a group of poets in the Regency who, by rights, ought to have been Victorians. The would have been getting on a bit by the time of many of the landmarks of High Victorianism; even Keats would have been 64 when The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Byron would be 73, assuming that he hadn’t died of syphilis or liver failure. But by that time they’d have lived through the coming of the railways, the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, the 1832 Reform Act, the abolition of slavery, the Irish potato famine, the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Shelley would certainly have had a few opinions.

I suppose they might have been less influential if they were still alive. In the increasingly stern moral climate of the time, it might have been more difficult for people to see past the unconventional lifestyles of Byron and Shelley if they were sill alive and racketing about in Italy. There’s a fascinating comment I read once, which I think came from the letters of Fanny Burney, although Google isn’t helping me. She is returning someone’s copy of Oroonoko, which she found too indecent to read. She comments how strange it is that she should find herself unable to read a book in the privacy of her own room which she had heard in her youth being read aloud at polite parties. Perhaps Byron and Shelley would have inevitably changed with the times in the same way; perhaps they would have become increasingly embarrassing relics.

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Shelley update

I’m still reading the Shelley biography. Remarkably, his personal life seems to have stabilised somewhat, I suspect mainly because his grandfather died and so, while the exact terms of the legacy are still with the lawyers, he’s not actually having to hide from the bailiffs any more.

The chances of his life running smooth are reduced by the fact that, as well as being atheist, vegetarian, republican and probably revolutionary, he’s a believer in free love of a rather high-minded sort. So the second wife in succession has had to deal with him being keen to share her with his friends. And what she seemed to find even more difficult, it rather looks like she was having to share him with her sister. The exact details are a bit conjectural because apparently there are lots of diary entries torn out from the relevant period.

It’s like Hello! for people who can’t bring themselves to read the real thing. Though I don’t suppose Jude Law’s love notes to Sienna Miller are couched in terms of high-flown philosophy.

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Shellier than thou

I didn’t mention in the last post that, as well as the two elopements, Shelley has been shot at by a Welsh ghost, is under observation by the government because of his seditious publications, and is going extravagantly into debt in expectation of an inheritance from a family which has disowned him.

Was there ever a time when I would have found all this romantic? Reading it now it just seems like complete car-crash biography.

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Shelley, Shellier, Shelliest.

I’m reading a biography of Percy Bysshe. An interesting and talented man, but perhaps just a wee bit erratic; he’s just eloped for the second time, abandoning his first wife and their new child in order to run off with a 16-year-old. And her sister. And he’s still only 21.

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Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.

Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.

It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.

It’s an interesting story and a moving book.

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17th century fly-by

A cool thing from the people at Digitally Distributed Environments:

See the whole panorama here.